A Case StudyTranslation of The Arabian Nights [Archives:2004/713/Education]

February 19 2004

By Dr Ayid Sharyan
Department of English
Faculty of Education
Sana'a University
[email protected]

This paper discusses an instance of practical translation so as to bring to focus the constraints in translating a text in Arabic to English and vice versa. The selection here is from The Arabian Nights since the text has been widely translated and read outside the Arab World. One tale of this narrative is translated by an Arab and the other one by a non-Arab.

Introduction: Nature of Arabic
A translator is to be like his author, it is not his business to excel him.
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

To talk of translaion is to talk of the cultural and linguistic aspects of the language (means of exression, lexical, phraseological elements, grammatical forms and syntactic constituents as well as different genre-related styles). Translation of Arabic language requires special attention to the peculiarities of this language. (in terms of script, vocabulary, grammar and cultureal nuances) so as to be able to transfer the subtleties of its meaning to any target language. An Arabic text is interlinked with its form, ideas, environment, time, place and so on.
In terms of writing system, Arabic does not follow the pattern of many languages. It is written from right to left. Its grammar is inflectional where a change in the form of a word takes place to show a grammatical change in tense, mood, gender, number, etc. The word order of Arabic is not like English: subject-verb-object (SVO). It varies its syntactic word order. Normal sentence word order in Arabic is VSO but SVO is a possible structure. Variations of word order are not limited since subject and object can be distinguished by their case endings due to the inflections and verb conjugations. This is because grammatical rules of Arabic depend on e'erab, applying rules to the word regardless of its position due to the inflectional structure of Arabic. Unlike English that depends on the place of the word in some grammar slots, Arabic vocabulary alters not because of their place in the word order but because of their function in the sentence. However, an adjective follows the noun and it is followed by an adverb unlike the case in English where the adjective has to precede the noun and it has to be preceded by the adverb. Whereas a word in English can fit different parts of speech (as an adjective, a noun and a verb), the form of an Arabic word does not change a lot to occupy different grammatical functions. Present past and future tense is available in Arabic but formation is different from English. However, there are no present continues, past participle or past perfect. Auxiliary verbs and particles are not available in Arabic too. Negating a sentence is made by putting a negation word before the verb with no auxiliary, e.g. [la duhkan bila nar] there is no smoke without fire.

[ma klu ma yatman al mar'a udrikahu tagri al rih bi mala tashthi al sufunu] Man does not attain all his heart's desire for the winds do not slow as the vessels wish.
Past, present and future tense of Arabic Verbs are formed by adding suffixes or prefixes that sometimes contain number and gender. In addition to the two tenses there are imperative forms, an active participle, a passive participle, and a verbal noun. Verbs that conjugate regularly are inflected for three persons, three numbers (singular, dual, plural), and two genders. The following examples of Arabic verbs in practice: ekataba= imperative form; write the lesson.] [yaktub aldres= present; He writes the lesson]. [katabtu aldres= past form; I wrote the lesson). [sofa aktub aldres= future form; I will write the lesson]. [gad katabtu aldres= similar to past perfect; I had written the lesson]. [kutib aldres= passive voice; The lesson was written]. If we want to negate the verb, it is simply by adding the negative marker [la=no] in front of the verb, e.g. [do not write the lesson].
Nouns and adjectives are less regular in formation, and have many different plural patterns. The so-called broken plurals are formed by altering the internal syllable shape of the singular noun. There are three cases (nominative, genitive, and accusative) in the declensional system of Classical Arabic nouns; nouns are no longer declined in the modern dial. Pronouns occur both as suffixes and as independent words, (Britannica 2002)1. These characteristics of Arabic grammar influence understanding of the text to be translated. When it is transferred to English, for instance, the problem becomes different. English is idiomatic in its use. Verbs gain different meanings when they are followed by some prepositions (phrasal verbs). To look into, is not like to look for or after. This feature is not part of Arabic language. It poses another problem for translation to and from Arabic.
This kind of grammar gives rise to some problems in translation. Another problem is the long history of Arabic that gives its vocabulary a wide range of connotative and denotative references that adds to its cultural heritage. All these have heavy bearings on the translator and on the message receptor. Thus if Arabic is a source language, the translator requires an exceptional effort due to distinctiveness of Arabic as a language that has its deep-rootedness in the Islamic and pre-Islamic culture.
With such a grounding of Arabic, one thinks of the role of the translator who has to digest the intricacies of Arabic and the target language. Understanding the art of translation as a social, reproductive, or creative activity so as to foster intercultural communications is another fascinating aspect that attracts translators.
Next part of this paper focuses on two passages translated by two different persons who came from two different backgrounds which may serve throw light on the translation potential of Arabic.
The aim here is not faultfinding, rather it is to see how one handles a text by being target-oriented or source-oriented. Paper-and-pen theoreticians have heatedly debated the notion of literal, linguistic, formal grammatical, textual vs. free, semantic, communicative, dynamic pragmatic translation. In practical translation, the theory of transfer, equivalence or correspondence from SL to TL is of little help for ground reality flouts all theories, at least with reference to the present selection. Translators make decisions whether to re-create or re-write texts so as to transfer the required amount of the intended text. This is governed, among other things, by type of text (scientific, technical, literary or non-literary), audience and purpose of translation. The process involves a lot of additions, deletions, expansions, changes of order, etc that touch the linguistic, literary and socio-cultural levels of SL and TL text. When it comes to a fictional text as the one under review, the situation becomes even more demanding due to the literary and cultural conventions inherited in the culture where the text originated and from the passage of time that adds another dimension to the text.
The translator in such a situation is faced with other technical aspects that relate to the dichotomy of form and content. The form of The Arabian Nights is unique if the authorial style and text style are taken into consideration. The message can be tailored to suit the target audience but at the expense of the original or the other way around. The linguistic and non-linguistic contexts (i.e. culture and society) are interwoven when a message is transferred from the SL to TL for the translator is dealing with two different cultures at the same time.

The Arabian Nights
[Alf layla wa-layla; trans. The Arabian Nights or The Thousand Nights And One Night) is a collection of stories that have been seen as one of the world great works of literature. The Arabian Nights is possibly originated as folk tales, anecdotes, or fables that were passed on orally. Stories like Ali Baba, Aladdin, and Sindbad the Sailor, etc are famous worldwide. It has been seen as a valuable source of information for scholars in different fields. These stories have been used as a window on the Arab world. Perceptions of prototypical Arabs were formed on the basis of the fictional portrayal. Like the Rub?iy?t of Omar Khayyam (1050? -1122), this narrative implies a sensual background of the East for it portrays the early Middle Eastern culture in that way. However, during the “medieval Arabic” (in the western terms), Alf layla wa-layla did not enjoy the esteem of literary scholars, who favoured the stylistically more challenging and erudite adab (literature) as The Nights and maqamat*. Nevertheless, this adab continues to be read and appreciated both in and outside the Arab world for its form and content. The narrative style of the frame story and interlinked sorties within influenced writers all over the world.
The story is of a frame story and other related sorties within it. The narrator of the frame story begins by a distinct Arabic style of narrative. It begins in the name of Allah, the most Merciful, most Gracious. The usual opening of every formal discourse in Arabic or traditional Arabic stories also includes words of thanks and praise to Allah (Alham'dollilah= glory be to God!)] and prayers and blessing upon the Lord of the Prophets, his family and companions. To draw the attention of the audience to the untruthfulness, the narrator says that [Allaho A'alam= God is All-knowing]- a usual stylistic device in the Arabic style to dissociate oneself from the fictional world of the story. It is to say that it is only as story for entertainment that has fun and wisdom in it.
After the elaborate introduction that prepares the audience mentally and psychologically, the narrator of the frame story begins by narrating the story of a king (sultan Schahriar) who paid a visit to his brother who is a king too. Sultan Schahriar went on an expedition and his brother who is bitter with the unfaithful wife remains behind. To his dismay, he saw the wife of the king having love affair with her cook. He told sultan Schahriar to hide himself and see how his wife behaves in his absence. When sultan Schahriar saw his wife in the hands of a servant, he swore himself by a binding oath that whatever wife he married, he would sleep with her at night and slay her at daybreak to make sure that his honour is not marred. He believes that there never is one chaste woman upon the face of earth. He resolved to marry every night a virgin girl and get rid of her in the morning. His Wazir [minister] has to bring him a girl every night for about three years to the extent that no girl is available to marry the king. Now the turn came to the daughter of the Wazir himself who decided to marry the king willingly to save the skin of the Muslim daughters. She designs a scheme to thwart the sultan's decree. Her strategy is to exploit the power of fiction to spell the sultan.
From this point in the story, the legendary queen named Scheherazade takes over to tell the story. The night after the wedding, she tells one of her enframed stories to her sister so that the sultan can overhear. She stops, however, before the story comes to its conclusion, and the sultan allows her to live another day so that he can hear the end. She continues this pattern night after night. After 1001 nights, the sultan relents and decides to let Scheherazade live. With this strategy, Scheherazade saves her skin and the daughters of the Muslims as she planned.
This powerful work attracted many translators who attempted to transfer both the linguistic and socio-cultural effects to the target audience. For the sake of convenience, the paper juxtaposes two translations of a tale in this long narrative. One of this was by Richard Francis Burton1, who translated The Arabic Nights2 in the 1880s. The other translation is from Abdulqader Alqit3 (1974). The two translations are juxtaposed to show the distinctiveness of Arabic style that resist translation and the way translators handle it to transfer the original to the target language and audience.

The Fisherman and the Jinni
This is the third story in the third night after the wedding of Scheherazade to the sultan Schahriar. The queen narrated stories that led to the fisherman and the jinni. The fisherman who is married with three children is poverty-stricken. He went to fish and after trying thrice got nothing. He made anottry to find an earthen pot in his net. He hoped that he has got a treasure that he can solve his economic problems with. To his surprise there is a jinni in this pot. The jinni told the fisherman that he has sworn to murder anyone who saves him and the fisherman has to choose the way he wants to die. Here Scheherazade 'perceived the dawn of the day and ceased to say her permitted say'. When earnestly asked to complete the story, she narrates how the fisherman used his intelligence to come out of this problem. He convinced the jinni that he couldn't believe that such a huge creature as jinni was inside that small pot. The jinni returned to the pot to show the fisherman and then the fisherman closed the pot upon which the jinni swore he would make the fisherman rich if released. The fisherman told him that his story with the Jinni is like the story of the Wazir of King Yunan with the sage Duban. The jinni asked about the story upon which the fisherman began to tell their story.
To be continued